Pilgrim's progress: Australia's Great Ocean Road

As the end of the First World War is marked once again, Frank Partridge visits Australia's Great Ocean Road – a military memorial with a difference

Long before the last shots of the Great War were fired, the Australian government began making plans for the tens of thousands of ex-servicemen who would eventually return from Europe. Of the many public projects launched across the nation to keep potentially idle hands at work, the most ambitious, eye-catching and long-lasting was the Great Ocean Road.

Today, the highway that swoops and loops for more than 400km along the rugged coast of Victoria – dropping to within a few metres of the Southern Ocean here, cutting inland through dense bush and forest there – has achieved iconic status on a parallel with the Pacific Highway and Route 66. From a scenic point of view, Australia's great coastal journey shades both the American roads; in terms of historical significance, it eclipses them.

As soon as construction of the Ocean Road got underway in 1919, the project was dedicated to "Our Boys" – the troops from Victoria who had died fighting in the war. For the fortunate survivors who disembarked from the troop ships to find themselves diverted to another back-breaking task, the memory of what they had endured at Gallipoli and the Western Front would perhaps have sustained them through the most difficult days. Resources were scarce, and they had to forge a path through unyielding outcrops of sandstone and granite with simple picks and shovels. Mike Brady, an Australian songwriter, wrote an album in tribute to the road and the men who built it: "As we the living carve this road/ With hand and pick and spade/ Remember those we left behind/ And the sacrifice they made."

As more men returned from the front, the number of diggers swelled to over 3,000. They lived in well-organised camps, with vegetable plots and cooks, pianos and gramophones. But the arduous work took its toll and turnover was high. Letters home record some men grumbling that life had been distinctly easier on the battlefront. Officials became impatient with their slow progress, but the diggers dug in their heels: having served their country with distinction, they would proceed at their own pace.

At intervals along the way, the map reveals distinct echoes of faraway places and sharp, dark memories that the workforce would have found impossible to forget: Monash Gully, Artillery Rocks, Shrapnel Gully, Sausage Gully, all named after places at Gallipoli, and a particularly sheer, impregnable buttress called Mount Defiance, where dynamite would have been needed to blast a way through. A spectacular lookout marks the spot today, graced by a memorial wall, while a modern memorial arch spans the highway at Eastern View, near Lorne, where travellers had to pay a toll – drivers two shillings and sixpence (12 p), passengers one shilling and sixpence (7p) – until the government took over maintenance of the road in 1936. At the same spot, a bronze statue of the diggers at work, sculpted by a local artist, was unveiled last April.

But the finest treasures of the Great Ocean Road were sculpted by sea, wind and time. They lie some way ahead, as the road chases the sun towards the west.

My journey began, as it did for the diggers, on the outskirts of Victoria's second city, Geelong, an hour's drive south-west of Melbourne. At that suburban stage of its life, the Great Ocean Road is marked on the map more prosaically as the B100. The first sight of the sea is at Torquay, where I made out what I thought was a colony of seals bobbing about in the distant surf. Closer inspection revealed them to be surfers in wetsuits, vainly hoping for a swell on a calm spring afternoon. Torquay is Australia's surfing capital – a cheerful, unpretentious place with one of the most unlikely museums in existence. Surfworld is devoted to the history of surfing, with a display showing how surfboards have developed over the years, and a collection of – wait for it – T-shirts and windcheaters from the Seventies and Eighties. Surfers, in my experience, are the fraternity least likely to want to spend any time in a museum, but it opens every day except Christmas, and business seems to be brisk enough.

Beyond Torquay, the road starts to get interesting, traversing deep gullies carved by fast-flowing rivers and rising again to surmount exposed cliffs and promontories that serve up one dramatic ocean view after another. In a nation trying to reduce the carnage on its road, the speed limits are tight on every curve, and scary signs – "a micro-sleep can kill in seconds" – warn of possible calamity if your attention wanders.

Forging south-west towards Cape Otway and its famous lighthouse – the oldest on the Australian mainland and the first sight of land for many an ocean traveller – you pass through trim holiday towns that were isolated fishing and logging communities until the new road linked them together for the first time. Today, the likes of Anglesea, Lorne and Apollo Bay are stylish weekend retreats for second-homers from the city, whose wooden villas perch in the hills, their giant picture windows making the most of the views.

At Apollo Bay ("Paradise by the sea") the Great Ocean Road becomes a misnomer, heading away from the surf and sand to pass through a densely wooded national park where you're more likely to encounter a kangaroo, koala bear or hedgehog-like echidna than a human being. Some of the creatures orphaned by road-kills or the spate of recent bush fires are being reared or nursed back to health at a remarkable conservation centre on the edge of the bush.

I pulled up at the Great Ocean Ecolodge at dusk, just in time for a nature walk through the bush with the co-owner, Shayne Neal. He and his wife Lizzie bought a patch of run-down farmland and together built their five-bedroom lodge on it, opening it for business in 2004. The heating and lighting is solar-powered; rainwater is channelled off the roof into giant storage tanks; most of the complex is built from recycled material. Yet the facilities are akin to those of a four-star hotel. "We wanted to prove to people you could still have the luxuries of life without either you or the planet suffering," Shane says. The suffering is certainly over for two young kangaroos who lost their parents and are fed twice daily by hand, and for three sleepy koalas balancing in the trees, recovering from severe burns. Out in the bush there's wildlife in abundance, including the rare yellow-bellied glider that has returned to the area as the patch of rainforest, now carefully managed, has quickly replenished itself. After dinner I sat on my terrace to catch the last of the light, closely observed by 13 kangaroos on their evening constitutional.

Back on the highway, 40km west of Cape Otway, is the scenic highlight of the Great Ocean Road, and one of the world's most photogenic coastal phenomena. The giant sandstone monoliths torn from the mainland by the crashing waves were known as the Sow and Piglets at the time the road was built, but were elevated to biblical status as the first generation of tourists made their pilgrimage to see them. In fact, the Twelve Apostles is another misnomer: there are 13 in all – in turn tall and proud, fractured and broken. The only way of capturing them all in a single camera shot is to take a ride on one of the many helicopters that soar over this exalted spot from dawn to dusk. The continuous aerial buzz detracts from the primordial majesty of the place, and dedicated nature-lovers are more likely to be found at the lookouts further west, training their binoculars at another dozen stacks in the luminous Bay of Islands, where short-tailed shearwaters fly 12,000 miles to return to the same nesting spot every year – often on the same day in late September.

After the Lord Mayor's Show, the great road slips into more humdrum mode as it works its way west, finally giving up the ghost when it joins the Princes Highway beside a less diverting tourist attraction called Cheese World, near the inland town of Allansford. The two-lane B100 gives way to the four-lane A1, which will take you, if you wish, across the state border between Victoria and South Australia and all the way to Adelaide.

Better to turn the car round and head back the way you came, this time with the ocean on the driver's side, as you contemplate the hardship endured by a dragoon of young men who returned from a horrific war to create a thing of beauty for those who remained at home.

Traveller's guide

GETTING THERE

The writer's trip was arranged by Flight Centre (0870 4990042; www.flightcentre.co.uk), which offers a one-week Melbourne and Great Ocean Road package from £999 per person. This includes return flights from Heathrow to Melbourne with Emirates, three days' car hire, five nights' accommodation in Melbourne and two nights' accommodation along the Great Ocean Road.

To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Equiclimate (0845 456 0170; www.ebico.co.uk) or Pure (020-7382 7815; www.puretrust.org.uk).

STAYING THERE

Great Ocean Ecolodge at Cape Otway Centre for Conservation Ecology, Victoria, Australia (00 61 3 5237 9297; www.capeotway centre.com.au). Double rooms start at A$300 (£133) per night, including afternoon tea, a guided dusk walk and breakfast.

VISITING THERE

Surfworld Surfing Museum, Beach Road, Torquay, Australia (00 61 3 5261 4606; www.surfworld.com.au). Open daily 9am-5pm. Admission A$9 (£4).

MORE INFORMATION

Great Ocean Road visitor information centre: 00 61 3 5237 6529; www.greatoceanroad.org. Tourism Melbourne: www.visitmelbourne.com/uk. Tourism Victoria: www.tourismvictoria.com.au

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